Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s first novel, a tale of blackmail, murder, and sleaze, is fully-formed and mature. In some ways this is not surprising. He had served his apprenticeship in both life and in writing. Perhaps more importantly, he had consciously studied the genre and set out to do the job well. His early aspirations to be a poet are evident in his flowing prose, his tight writing, and his superb descriptions.

On the surface, The Big Sleep is a crime novel. Marlowe is hired to check out a blackmailer to see what would be the best way to deal with the situation. He is quickly drawn into the gutter where pornographers, drug dealers, and professional gamblers prey on the addictions of others. To call it a crime novel, however, is to suggest it is nothing more than an entertaining puzzle, which is well wide of the mark. Crime is the framework on which Chandler hangs his portraits of people and how they react in the worst of possible situations. In The Big Sleep, we also see the consequences of addiction and of the crimes that are committed.

There are some who accuse Chandler of misogyny (and occasionally make the distinction between author and character and accuse Marlowe of misogyny), but I feel this misses several points. Marlowe tends to mix with a particular type of person, male and female. Some he likes and treats well, others he does not like. Some he gets disgusted with even when he realizes they perhaps cannot help themselves. It is a realistic reflection of the world in which Marlowe lives and of the character. But it is also the genre in which Chandler writes. He was writing to a specific formula. What sets Chandler apart (along with others who have worked within the crime genre but also transcended it) is the quality of his writing and the depth of his creation. At no time does he allow the genre to confine what he writes. Rather, he uses the very solid foundation to build a better and more interesting piece of work. And all this whilst still telling a great story.